One week after graduating from Baylor University with a degree in Theatre Arts and History, I jumped on a plane headed for Thailand to teach English for ten months. It has been a little over four months since I touched down at the airport in Chiang Mai, so I feel as though I have gained enough experience here to at least share the few things I have learned so far. These past four months have been filled with the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. The excitement of experiencing a new culture and engaging your students with fun lessons makes for very fulfilling days where you feel like you are on top of the world. On the other hand, the constant struggle of trying to communicate with students, teachers, and people in town that speak no English, the isolation, and the frustrations that will inevitably come when working with kids makes for days that feel like a massive gut punch. The highs and lows together are what makes the experience of teaching in a foreign country so unique and life-changing. Not everything can be “Instagram perfect.” Nor should it be! All that being said, here are three things I have learned about being a better teacher and a better human:
- Be humble.
- Be patient.
- Pray without ceasing.
I will not say that my time in Thailand has taught me these things, but rather it is teaching me these things.
You are not Hilary Swank and this is not Freedom Writers. Many teachers, myself included, come to a foreign country “ready to change the world” and save the students by teaching them English for 50 minutes two or three times a week. While there is nothing wrong with wanting to make the world a better place by serving in a community as an English teacher, one cannot get caught up in their own narrative. In reality, you stand to learn just as much (if not more) from the people around you as they stand to learn from you! Do not try to fit your experience into the narrative you have created in your head. Face reality. Reality hit me right in the face pretty early on as I realized that there is a huge difference between speaking English and teaching people how to speak English. It is also especially difficult to teach English in English to kids (and some teachers) who do not speak English. When I figure how to do this, I will let you know. In a very short period of time, I came to realize that I am a horrible teacher. Teaching is a skill and it takes years to master and, while I have made progress, I still have a long way to go. Cultivating a skill like teaching requires hard work fueled by healthy doses of humility. I am learning to approach my weaknesses as a teacher (and as a person) by trying to remain humble and not letting pride get in the way of progress.
Remember that you are not the center of the universe. I teach both middle-school kids and high school seniors. All the middle-school kids really want to do is listen to K-pop and all the high school kids want to do is move on with their lives. Learning English, except for a few very driven students, is not number one on their list of priorities. Also, English is just a stupid language. Don’t get me wrong, I love English, but boy is it stupid. Trying to explain why “read” is spelled the same but pronounced differently in the present and past tense to kids who already do not have the faintest idea what you are saying can be a tad frustrating to say the least. Take things slow. Speak slow, write big, and smile a lot. English is hard and the kids often have other things on their mind; you and your class are not the center of their universe. Just be patient and handle all of the things you can control (the lesson plan, getting there on time, etc.). There is no need to lose your cool!
Pray without ceasing.
St. Paul, in his first letter to the Thessalonians, says to “pray without ceasing.” Yeah. All of the time. Be sure to set aside time to pray at least once or twice a day (a good practice is setting aside a specific times for morning and evening prayer) and to keep that time specifically for prayer. These set aside times, even if they are only a minute or two, have become absolutely essential for my life here in Thailand. During the day, even if you cannot go and find a quite place to pray (good luck finding one in a high school), use short prayers, repeating them as often as necessary. As an Orthodox Christian, I like to use the Jesus Prayer which goes, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” However, there are countless short prayers and passages from scripture that one can use. I will post more of these powerful short prayers in the future. Prayer is not just for old ladies, priests, and monks; prayer is what keeps us in communion with Jesus Christ, the author of our salvation, and the creator of this world who is “everywhere present and fills all things.” Never underestimate the prayer of a short and heartfelt prayer.
“God’s grace always assists those who struggle, but this does not mean that a struggler is always in the position of a victor.” -St. John Maximovitch
I fall short of living out these principles every day, but the struggle to put them into practice is what gives life meaning and, quite honestly, what makes life more exciting. So, whatever you are doing, whether its teaching in Thailand or working for NASA, embrace the struggle!